LOS ANGELES — The fifth episode of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, will begin Sunday with a dedication.
“In loving memory of Kobe Bryant,” a tribute to the Lakers star who died in January along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash.
Magic Johnson, who is featured prominently in the episode, will be watching at home with his wife, Cookie, as he has been on Sunday nights since the series debuted three weeks ago.
Johnson didn’t want a sneak peek at the show, but he is confident of this:
“It’s going to mean a lot to a lot of people, especially (in Los Angeles), and it’s going to mean a lot to Kobe fans,” he said during a recent interview. “They’re going to need this. Nobody is past what happened. It will mean something to them and all of us who are Kobe fans and Lakers fans.”
The series chronicles the 1997-98 Bulls, and its halfway mark is also the midway point of that season — Bryant’s first NBA All-Star Game, and Jordan’s last with the Bulls.
“You could see the beginning of this special relationship that was going to take place and start forming then,” Johnson said. “Kobe respected guys but it was different (with Michael). He idolized Michael in a way that was different from anybody else. It was like, ‘Man, I’m trying to be like you but I also want to show you what I got in this All-Star Game too.’ I loved the fact that I was there and I could witness it just like Larry (Bird) and I witnessed during the (1992) Olympics, how we were passing the torch to Michael. Some things you never forget and that was a moment I’ll never forget — the torch being passed.”
Jordan retired after the season and two years later Bryant won the first of his five championships with the Lakers under Phil Jackson, Jordan’s coach in Chicago. Behind the scenes, a special relationship developed between Jordan and Bryant that few people would know about until Bryant’s passing.
Johnson said he knew of the late-night phone calls and deep conversations, but not of the strength of their bond until Jordan’s tearful speech at Bryant’s memorial at Staples Center in February.
“Both of them never talked publicly about it but I think they could understand each other,” Johnson said. “Kobe wanted to go get to that level. That’s what he always told me, ‘I want to be like you and Michael, not only on the court but I want to be like you guys off the court.’ That was one of the last things Kobe told me. He was chasing those six championships and he always wanted Michael’s respect. Kobe didn’t have a lot of friends but he really had a good friend in Michael. I think they could go to (places in) conversations that nobody could go to, in terms of on those levels. He knew that Michael really cared about him and vice versa, Kobe really cared about Michael.”
Bryant refers to Jordan as his “big brother” in the documentary and Jordan tearfully called Bryant his “little brother” during his memorial speech, adding, “When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died.”
Said Johnson: “Michael is going to miss those conversations. He’s going to miss his little brother. I’m just happy somebody went even deeper into Michael’s world and he could say, ‘This was my little brother,’ because he didn’t say that about anybody else.”
Johnson’s own friendship with Jordan began to grow after the Bulls defeated the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. Johnson retired as a player five months later, after announcing he had HIV. He became a color commentator for NBC before the 1992 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers. A memorable moment of that series came in Game 1 when Jordan, having notched a record 35 points and six 3-pointers in the first half, turned to Johnson at the broadcast table and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “What did I tell you?”
“The night before we’re at (Jordan’s) house all night, playing cards,” Johnson said. “We’re playing a game called bid whist and his father is my teammate and (Charles) Oakley and him are teammates. We’re having a ball all night long and I look up and it’s 1 or 1:30 a.m. so I say, ‘I got to go so you can get some sleep.’ He turns to me and says, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. Clyde Drexler is in trouble tomorrow.’ … Everything he told me the night before, he really went out there and did it. That’s what people don’t know. We sat up all night and he was telling me how he was going to dominate Clyde. He had a dislike for Clyde Drexler for some reason.”
It was the first of many nights Johnson and Jordan engaged in some friendly wagering that summer. One month later, they became teammates for the first and only time on the Olympics’ “Dream Team,” which solidified for Johnson that Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time.
“There’s always got to be something on it. We can’t just shoot,” Johnson recalled. “There has to be money on it. He loved playing for something and talking trash and we enjoyed every moment and it changed our relationship. Our relationship was special during that two months we were together.
“We played cards every night. He wouldn’t let me go to sleep. This guy would play cards from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and he would get two hours of sleep and have an 8 a.m. tee time, go play golf, take a two-hour nap and score 30 by halftime. This dude was just incredible. He’s the G.O.A.T.”
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